On its third anniversary, the Egyptian revolution may have come full circle back to square one, but it will eventually, perhaps decades from now, square the circle and deliver on its root promises of “bread, freedom, dignity”
The word “revolution” perfectly encapsulates the events of the past three years. It is almost as if Egyptians was strapped into history’s rollercoaster and taken the most exciting, thrilling, terrifying, inspiring, demoralising, and deadly ride in generations.
Meanwhile, the country has gone through a spin cycle so intense and severe that its political, social and economic fabric is in tatters — and it remains unclear whether this will be rewoven into silk or polyester. For the time being, we’re left with a blood-soaked rag, as the Egyptian regime undertakes one of its bloodiest political purges in recent history and faces an increasingly deadly Islamist insurgency.
The Egyptian people’s success in defeating three dictators (Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Mohamed Morsi) in as many years caused short-lived elation, quickly eclipsed by the dictatorial tendencies of Egypt’s leadership.
On the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, it seems increasingly likely that Egypt’s latest despot, albeit one with a “popular mandate”, Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, will run for president, consolidating and deepening his grip on power, especially if the presidential vote precedes parliamentary elections.
While a significant proportion of the Egyptian population – weary after three years of instability and unrest – seem to welcome this eventuality, a growing number of people are beginning to see through the current regime’s hollow democratic rhetoric and are becoming fearful of its brutally autocratic methods. For their part, the pro-Morsi camp continues to scream democratic legitimacy while dreaming of divine dictatorship.
The polarisation between two autocratic visions has left those who aspire for and believe in the values of the revolution with a bad taste in their mouths and a sense of despair. “We view ourselves back at square one, because what is happening now could be more dangerous, more complicated than what was there before 25 January 2011,” Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the 6th April Youth Movement which helped spearhead the revolution, said back in August, shortly after the blood-soaked dispersal of the Raba’a Al-Adaweya protest camp.
And “more dangerous” it has proven to be. Not only have unknown numbers of Morsi supporters been killed and thousands more imprisoned, but with the Muslim Brotherhood branded a “terrorist organisation”, the regime is now turning its attention back to the secular activists it had temporarily neglected while it dealt with its former Brothers.
“Nothing symbolised the end of it all like the Protest Law and Maher and others getting arrested,” confessed one activist. “We are now in a situation that is even worse than what we had under Mubarak.”
It is a sad indictment of the direction matters have taken in Egypt and of the power of the counterrevolution’s counteroffensive. It serves further testament that three of the most prominent youth leaders who were behind the anti-Mubarak uprising – Maher, Alaa Abdel Fatah and Ahmed Douma – all received politically motivated three-year sentences last month for protesting, of all things.
So, does all this mean that the revolution is dead and done for?
Well, all things considered, our short-term prognosis must be that the revolution is fatally wounded but is far from hearing its own death knells. To borrow a military analogy that our de facto leaders would understand, the battle may be lost but the war is far from over.
If we can take the past as a compass for the future, revolutions are often betrayed or defeated – either by the old guard or the revolutionaries themselves – but the dreams and ideals they unleash are impossible to repress.
Take the French Revolution. In its immediate wake, France went through Robespierre’s “reign of terror”, which makes the current crackdown in Egypt look like junior league, a bloody civil war and wars with neighbouring states. It also resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat and, after that, the restoration of the monarchy, among other setbacks.
One can only imagine the despair and disillusionment felt by those French citizens who believed in the revolution’s original objectives. Yet the French revolution’s vision – summed up pithily in those three eternal words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – survived to fight another day, and another, and another, inspiring struggles for freedom across Europe and the world. And, in France, it was eventually and largely realised, albeit after five republics.
Likewise in Egypt, whether it gets a new military dictator or not, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no turning back, bleak as the outlook may seem now. Although the revolution’s goals are unlikely to be achieved any time soon, its rallying call of “bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity” will resonate for generations to come.
In addition, what can be called the spirit of Tahrir Square, though it is really the spirit of revolutionary Egypt as a whole, may be suppressed and even repressed for a time, but it cannot be eliminated. Although Egypt’s political class does not seem to have read the memo that the times have changed, Egyptians have already overcome and overthrown the most oppressive dictatorship of all: the despot inside their minds, the tyranny of fear.
Even if Egyptians now allow themselves to be intimidated into acquiescence or worn down into submitting to the status quo, this will only be temporary. They are bound to rise again, much to the admiration and respect of outside observers like myself, to demand more than a few crumbs of bread, a foot of freedom or a drop of dignity.
There is a latent, implicit recognition of this reality amongst the political elite. Although both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are autocratic in nature, they both talk the language of democracy, freedom and equality. This is visible in Al-Sisi’s constant reference to popular “mandates” and obeying the “will of the people”. It is also apparent in the Brotherhood’s constant references to “legitimacy” and their claims that Morsi’s overthrow was a betrayal of the revolution.
Moreover, even if there is no clear sign of light at the end of the political tunnel, Egypt is in the early throes of a profound social and cultural revolution which is rising from the grassroots up. This can be seen in the clear antiauthoritarianism of many Egyptians, the growing independence of young people, the increasing social and political assertiveness of women, not to mention previously unnoticed minorities, such as non-believers.
In 2011, I argued that Egypt’s uprising would only succeed if it set off a true social (r)evolution – and, unexpectedly, this seems to be one of its few true successes to date. With time, as society changes from the bottom, up, so will its political landscape.
“I still have confidence that one day we will see a new Egypt,” Ahmed Maher said. “My generation might not see these changes. We might be paving the way for the new generation to see these changes.”
And sadly, though I wish that the millions of Egyptians who have sacrificed, and will continue to sacrifice, for the revolution’s ideals be rewarded for their pains, they are likely to be the lost generation. The true gains from their efforts will only be reaped by the next generation. Or maybe the one after that.